Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

The release of this novel was a huge event in the literary calendar, following the success of Rooney’s previous two novels. I loved ‘Conversations with Friends’ and ‘Normal People,’ so I dropped lots of hints around books I’d love to get for Christmas and my husband kindly obliged!

‘Beautiful World, Where are You,’ lived up to expectations for me and perhaps even exceeded them.

Rooney tends to focus in on a small number of characters in her novels and this one revolves around Alice, a novelist who has moved to Mayo after suffering a breakdown, Eileen, her best friend who works at a literary magazine, Simon, Eileen’s friend and ‘on again off again’ lover who is exceptionally handsome, and Felix a local guy who works in a warehouse.

The novel begins as Alice meets Felix for a date (they met on a dating app) and Rooney’s subtle prose is immediately in evidence:

‘A woman sat in a hotel bar, watching the door. Her appearance was neat and tidy: white blouse, fair hair tucked behind her ears……..At eight minutes past seven, a man entered through the door. He was slight and dark-haired, with a narrow face.’

And off we go into Rooney’s millennial angst-ridden journey. As the novel unfolds the dramatics between all four characters develop as they each try to figure out their place in the world. Rooney intersperses third-person narration with chapters consisting of emails sent between Eileen and Alice. For me, this was the only part of the novel I questioned. I found the content of the emails pretentious and overly thought out.

What I adore about Sally Rooney is her powers of observation and ability to express at such a deep level what her characters are feeling. I actually felt my stomach churn when reading one of the scenes at a party, remembering what it feels like to be isolated, confused, and alone despite being surrounded by people.

Her writing is subtle but it draws you in so deeply to the characters’ feelings, anxieties, and desires. I felt a huge relief to have passed through that stage of my life!

Alice is a successful novelist and I wondered how much of the author’s life was in this character. She is successful and swings between being superior and aloof, to exceptionally needy. What Rooney does with all her characters is give you so much to work with that you end up feeling empathy for them, despite their flaws. I found Eileen a harder character to like. Simon, I would have liked to have learned more about and Felix was my kind of man – he had his faults but he wasn’t pretending to be anyone he wasn’t.

Rooney has been criticised for being shallow in her politics, or for trying to be too clever in her opinions. While I do find some of her characters’ opinions ridiculously pretentious, I can forgive that given how well I feel I know them by the end of the novel. That is her gift in my opinion – characters that stay with you.

I adored this book and highly recommend it.